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Annette

Age at interview: 54
Brief Outline: Annette’s son started self-harming when he was 17. He used various methods, including cutting, overdoses, electrocution and hanging, and has threatened to jump from high places. Annette never gave up supporting him; he is now much happier and no longer harms himself.
Background: Annette, 54, is single with a 28 year old son. She used to work as an administrator, and is now a part-time student. Ethnic background: White British.

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Annette’s son was a confident fun-loving boy, but he became anxious and withdrawn after being badly beaten up when he was 14 or 15. He got very thin, dyed his hair black, and his film and music tastes were very dark. His mood was low and he lost his self-esteem, telling his mother that he did not want to live, although he did not show his feelings of despair to others. Annette was very fearful for him, and one day he phoned her at work to say that he had cut his wrists, taken some pills, and had taped a bag over his head. Annette rushed home and stopped him in time. She took him to the GP but she felt that he was not taken seriously. Her son continued to cut himself and took overdoses; he was treated in hospital several times. He also threatened to jump off buildings and bridges, tried to hang himself, and to electrocute himself in the bath. He was referred to psychiatric care, but was discharged when he could not keep appointments. He was given some support by a team who advised him on medication. Annette praises an inpatient unit which admitted him when he was particularly distressed in the middle of the night. She was grateful that her son confided in her about how he was feeling, and she persevered in telling him how much she loved him and was always there for him. She constantly reminded him of the happy times they had had together, and about possibilities for the future, and eventually her son told her that he didn’t want to go on harming himself. He is now much better and has a small child; Annette is delighted to see them every weekend.

Annette couldn’t understand why her good-looking son would want to cut his skin. She found the cutting more traumatic than her son’s other suicidal behaviour. She is still haunted by images of horrific wounds. Some of the time she blamed herself, but then decided that her son’s low self-esteem was not due to anything she had done. She says her own stress levels were very high, she couldn’t sleep properly, and she was constantly on red alert. She developed severe panic attacks but had to wait several months before receiving treatment, and decided to pay for private counselling. Annette thinks the panic attacks were a result of her not being able to express her own emotions for so long, and not being able to get the right help for herself at an early stage. Her son didn’t want her to tell anyone about the extent of his difficulties and even when she did try to talk to her family she wasn’t taken seriously and wasn’t given much support. She had to take time off work and went into debt providing for her son’s needs. She was granted six weeks’ counselling through her work, but found her private counsellor more helpful.

Annette felt excluded by most of the clinicians who treated her son, but on one occasion the psychiatrist included her – she says she was really glad, because then she had a voice as well. She had been angry with the doctor because he questioned her son directly about how he was planning to kill himself, but he then asked her if she would want her son to live if he was suffering from cancer. She said this was like opening a doorway for her, because she could understand how much emotional pain her son was experiencing. She wishes there had been better communication with her son’s therapists so that things could have been explained to her. She thinks she was seen as causing pressure and contributing to her son’s problems, although her son disputed this and stopped attending the clinic. 

Her advice to other parents is to be attentive at all times, and to keep listening. She says ‘all you can be is yourself, and only give as much as you can give of yourself, and that’s all that can be expected of you. And if you can get any help out there, by all means just do it.’ She advises clinicians to broaden their research into self-harm, and to be aware that not everyone fits into a tick box. She feels they did not take her son’s self-harm seriously because he presented a cheerful front, and recommends that people who express suicidal ideas should be checked on regularly. She thinks a 24 hour drop-in centre would be a very valuable facility and less stressful for people who find it difficult to comply with fixed appointment times. She also suggests that for some people medication is not the answer and some other form of treatment should be considered.
 

Annette’s son’s lifestyle, music and film tastes ‘were all very dark and dour’.

Annette’s son’s lifestyle, music and film tastes ‘were all very dark and dour’.

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Yeah, he kind of went through various different stages and I suppose the first stage was the lower mood oh, and the withdrawal, you know, withdrawal of life and things like that. But then the second stage for me was the change, the change in the physical demeanour, you know, with his not eating he got very thin. He changed his hair. His hair became long and he darkened it, and he made it very dark and black. Like his lifestyle, the music, his music and film tastes they were all very dark and dour, you know, and he sort of familiarised with anything that was very negative. He had quite a morbid fascination, which he didn’t have before, and I suppose he could relate to that in some ways because he was feeling negative in himself.
 

Annette’s son phoned to tell her he had harmed himself and she wouldn’t see him anymore.

Annette’s son phoned to tell her he had harmed himself and she wouldn’t see him anymore.

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And then came the phone call and I remember I was out at the time I think I was at work, yeah, something like that, and he phoned me and he said, “Mum.” He said, “I’ve got a bag on my head. I’ve taken some pills and I’ve cut my arm and you won’t be seeing me anymore.” And well, I think I was just in so much shock, but my instant reaction was to get in that car.

Drive as fast as I could with sadly, no care and get to him as quickly as I could and I flew into the house and yeah, he really was serious about it and he was in, he did have the bag on his head and I found him and, to be honest, I found him. 
 

Annette hid anything her son might use to harm himself.

Annette hid anything her son might use to harm himself.

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I had to hide, [laughs] lock away, [laughs] any chemicals and things like that because he’d drink anything. Anything that was in the cupboard, put them away or better still, don’t have them. Any knives, don’t have any knives in your house. Just don’t have them because they can’t help themselves, you know. They’re beyond helping themselves. They need someone outside to help in and so I was very aware of that, that I needed to do that and I think that’s an important thing is to be aware, to be attentive at all times



Text changed in accordance with Annette’s wishes.
 

Annette thinks it is important to be attentive at all times. She was ‘on twenty-four hour red alert’ but didn’t want to aggravate her son.

Annette thinks it is important to be attentive at all times. She was ‘on twenty-four hour red alert’ but didn’t want to aggravate her son.

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They’re beyond helping themselves. They need someone outside to help in and so I was very aware of that, that I needed to do that and I think that’s an important thing is to be aware, to be attentive at all times.

Definitely attentive. It is tricky because it does take a lot out of you, as a person, yeah, it does take a lot out of you but those subtle signs being consciously aware all the time, not aggravating the person or him. And also be in the shadow really, you know. Being their shadow, following what they do, doing what they like and encouraging them to do good things as well as not just the dark things. 

Now it’s funny, you know, throughout all that time these things, the cutting particularly, really sharpened at my awareness. In fact, I was on red alert, you know. The stress was high. I was very anxious about everything. I was on twenty four red alert [laughs] watching and making sure. I didn’t sleep properly. 
 

Annette ‘felt the loss of her son’ even though he hadn’t died. She couldn’t accept that he didn’t want to be alive.

Annette ‘felt the loss of her son’ even though he hadn’t died. She couldn’t accept that he didn’t want to be alive.

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You know, there was many times, I had felt the loss of him, even though I hadn’t lost him. It was quite traumatic yeah, because I was waiting for death and yet I couldn’t accept death and there was no way I was going to accept death and I would do everything I could within my power to actually keep him alive but he didn’t want to be alive. His negative thinking was that he was more, better off not being here than living the life he was living and I couldn’t understand that. A person that’s so full of life [laughs] wanting to not live, you know, why? Why would you want to do that? 

Anyway, I didn’t understand it and mainly, also I couldn’t accept it. How could I accept that? No way. I brought this child into the world. I couldn’t accept that. 
 

Annette was annoyed when a psychiatrist asked her son about suicidal plans, but he helped her understand what her son was feeling.

Annette was annoyed when a psychiatrist asked her son about suicidal plans, but he helped her understand what her son was feeling.

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I do remember feeling opposed to his approach towards my son because he asked him how he was going to plan, you know, his suicide and I was actually quite annoyed about it. There I was trying to make my son live and he was actually talking to him like it was okay and it wasn’t. In my eyes, it wasn’t okay.

And I think that’s part of the consultation, I hadn’t had a consultation about what happens with people, who suffer with suicide, and when the psychiatrist spoke it was coming from a different angle for me because I was coming from the side of living and he was coming from the side of experience of suicide and how you can deal with it. So for me, it was actually quite annoying to hear somebody tell my son it’s okay but then he did speak to me, the psychiatrist, and he said to me, “Would you be happy to see your son suffering if he was suffering cancer?” 

And, at that point, I actually remember thinking, “No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t really want to see him suffering and if he’s in that much pain, no.” I really, really would not because suicide is pain. It is like cancer, you know, they do suffer. They suffer a lot so much that, that’s their answer, even though it’s not a right one, because if it was right then we’d all be doing it and, you know, we wouldn’t have a world. So it is a wrong one, even though at the time they think it’s right. 

But yeah, I mean him saying that, at the time, I was quite opposed to it but then when he mentioned how it was for [my son], I realised that my son was in a great, intense amount of pain. And it was an opening for me and it was a doorway too because I thought I finally understand what my son’s going through and now I have to either come to terms that one day, when I’m not with him that he will go, or just live through, you know, what hope I have for him. 
 

Annette went into debt because she needed private counselling and emergency money for her son.

Annette went into debt because she needed private counselling and emergency money for her son.

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But I did, I mean it cost me money and I did go into debt with [my son]. It cost me a lot of money. I was pretty solvent before that but I got a credit card and the bills were running up, you know. These are emergency things and he needs emergency supplies, you know, you need emergency emotion [laughs]. You need emergency money and if you haven’t got that tucked away, any of your savings or anything, forget that, that’s all gone [laughs]. It all gets spent because you’re running on a fast track and you’ll do anything and everything and pay anything, for somebody to resolve the problems. 

So I did actually go and seek private. It was expensive but it was a quicker relief. I was in a fortunate position, I had a credit card but yes, it was putting me in debt but it was manageable because I was still working, even though they’d given me some time out from work. I was working. I wasn’t in a position of unemployment. That would have been more difficult for me and I can be aware of that.

But I was a little bit more fortunate in that I still maintained my job. I’d been in my job quite a long time, you know. It wasn’t like I’d sort of started a job or tried to get a job or was unable to get a job. So for me, it was not easier but, I wouldn’t say options, but it was a better transition because, you know, I could get access to money.

Rather than have that suffering as well. So yeah, I did start paying and I did go to counselling. I went for quite a while really, longer than I had been prepared but then I was happy to keep going and keep paying because I’d pay anything just to be me again, just to be happy and, you know, I did. I’d start understanding myself, understanding the circumstances about what was happening with me, understanding the circumstances of what happened with my son.
 

Annette’s son reacted badly to the medicine he was given. She thought doctors should have got to know him better before they prescribed the tablets.

Annette’s son reacted badly to the medicine he was given. She thought doctors should have got to know him better before they prescribed the tablets.

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And then, let me think, after that, what happened is we did have some people come to the house and they did give him some support. They asked him a lot of questions. They advised him on taking medicine. Now my son has never really taken medicine before and, while the suggestion was very good, I don’t think the medicine was well prescribed to him. He had given this medicine in the hope it would actually, alleviate I suppose some of or give him some sense of relief to all the things that were going on in his head. But in real truth, the medicine was too strong and it wasn’t the right one.

And I know you can never tell which is the right one but for him, it actually caused him to be very ill physically. I do remember him crouching down in a very small way talking in a very slurred voice saying, “Mum, help me. Help me because I can’t cope with this. I can’t cope with this.” And I said, “Oh son son, listen. We’ll get through this. We’ll get through this. No matter what, we’ll get through this. I’m here. I’m here for you.” And I do remember thinking, even though he’s got that stress, you know, to give him these tablets was very distressing also.

But not so much more for myself but more for him really because he was already suffering in pain and the dosage was just too excessive and that’s no criticism on anyone’s part. It’s just that maybe with a bit more hindsight about who he was, the kind of illness he was suffering, because there’s different types of self-harming.

And there’s different types, there’s idolation of suicide and I think, getting to know that person and more about them, I think would have perhaps given them a better idea and him, of what was properly prescribed really, to be quite honest. So, yeah, that was pretty stressful. 
 

Annette’s son knew his mother was ‘backing him up one hundred per cent’. She encouraged him to think about the future and boosted his morale.

Annette’s son knew his mother was ‘backing him up one hundred per cent’. She encouraged him to think about the future and boosted his morale.

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What do you think was the turning point for him that, you know, somehow, when he stopped self-harming?

Yeah, I think, for him, I think it was probably an awareness of actually that there was more than just what he thought there was. You see, at the time when he was in his low moods, he was telling me that he was having a low mood and I was actually thinking to myself, “Well, this is scary. Every time he keeps telling me, this is scary. Do I really want to hear it?” But I did want to hear it because I needed to know that nothing more was going to escalate but, at the same time, it was actually having a knock-on effect on me as well. So that was difficult but still keep listening, I think that’s important. But what changed it, I think it’s because he knew I was backing him up one hundred per cent. He knew if anything, if he was worried about anything or anything, if he had someone backing him up they were there, they were supporting him one hundred per cent. He knew that I loved him to bits.

No matter what but I think it was more that I was actually just there. You know, when he wanted to go to the appointment to see a psychiatrist or something, he couldn’t do that himself. It was actually really, really tough for him to do that.

So, by having me there to come with him, that was almost half the battle really. It was like I was taking that on for him.

So he didn’t have to think that for himself because to think things is stressful, it’s really stressful to think things when you’re in a dark mood. You know, so it was good that somebody else was taking that on. So a lot of that was the basis of supporting, you know, that they didn’t actually feel they were out there, you know, being on their own. 

Because you can’t do it. You can’t, no matter how the will in the world, sometimes you just cannot do it and even to pick up the phone, you can’t do it either, to let that person know but they think you’ve let them down but you haven’t. It’s just you’re so low in yourself. I think also the future, talking about the future. He really wasn’t expecting that one. He really thought this was what I guess the low mood was, the low mood and he felt he couldn’t get out of it, that he said there didn’t seem anywhere, way out. But I keep talking about, what would he like? What would he like to, you know, he could have children. He could he could meet someone and he could be happy and he could have a lovely life, and a family and how the family thought the world of him, how important they were to him.

Yes.

And that they would miss him and if they saw him hurting himself that would be upsetting. You know, not saying upsetting as in, that he should feel any pressure to that but that they cared for him. Yeah, that they cared for him.

Yeah.

And that they wouldn’t want any harm coming to him. So I think it was a lot, making him feel that he was part of something, yeah, that knew him and knew him well. And putting the comedy films on and things like that a lot of stuff I played back to him was things that he’d actually liked from his past, you know. There was one, I don’t know, a film, if I can mention it?

Yeah.

A series in particular was Only Fools and Horses.

Oh yes.

Because there was a camaraderie of family in their humour, in their adversity and humour and he could really, really associate with that and I think and even to this day, I mean we go to the conventions [laughs], But he’s really kept that in his mind because he played that over and over and over, you know, and even sometimes when he’s feeling a bit low now, occasionally, not so much, but he still says, “Let’s get the Only Fools and Horses on, mum.” And I’ll say, “Yeah, let’s do that.”

Yeah because for him, that really made him laugh, you know, because he felt the sense of family in that, yeah, because there was brothers together no matter what, so that kind of sense of feeling is important.

And also the worth, that you’re constantly telling them that they’re brilliant, they’re wonderful, that was fantastic, well done, God, that was great, thank you, oh, that kind of thing. All the time you’re just telling them all the time constantly.
 

The elastic band technique helped Annette’s son reduce his self-cutting.

The elastic band technique helped Annette’s son reduce his self-cutting.

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And slowly, and it was slowly and it did take a lot, he started to say to me, “Mum, I don’t feel like I want to really carry on with this cutting.” Now part of that was he used the band technique, which is an elastic band, put the elastic band on their arm or arms and they skit it, you know. They pull it, stretch it and then feel the pain of it because what they’re trying to do, I guess, is, you know, feel a sense of reality, a sense of themselves. So by doing that, it’s acknowledging that they are actually in this world and it’s the same as the cutting, the blood. That’s them recognising that they are, I guess, I mean I’m not a doctor, but from my own experience.

And so, yeah, so he used the band technique, which was good. He did cut down on a lot of the cutting, to be quite honest, which for me was a relief.
 

Life is ‘brilliant’ for Annette now that her son has his own child and comes to see her each weekend.

Life is ‘brilliant’ for Annette now that her son has his own child and comes to see her each weekend.

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What are your thoughts about the future now?

Oh brilliant [laughs]. Really good. Really good, honestly. I mean, you know, I’m not saying life’s not going to have its problems. I know you’ll always get problems. They’ll always come along but yeah, brilliant. I mean it’s really great. I see my son every weekend. He comes round to see me. We go out. We stay in. We watch a movie. We stay with his son as well. So yeah, it’s lovely. It’s really lovely and now I’ve got a family that I never thought I would have but it’s brilliant, you know. I’ve got him. I’ve got my grandson you know I couldn’t ask for more.

Lovely.

Yeah, it is. It’s really nice. It’s a happy ending, yeah. Well, [laughs] what you might call a happy ending.
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